It only seems like there has been an endless stream of Grateful Dead compilations. In reality, there has only been a handful, and the most notable of those were released while the band was still an active recording and touring unit in the '70s -- and before they had belated chart success in the late '80s, 20 years after their debut album. So, Warner/Rhino's 2003 collection The Very Best of Grateful Dead marks the first attempt to do a thorough single-disc overview of the group's career, encompassing not just their classic Warner albums but also the records they cut for their own Grateful Dead/UA and Arista. As always with the Dead, it's hard to condense the band's free-ranging, freewheeling output onto one disc, and there are some big songs and concert staples missing here, including the perennial "Dark Star," "Jack Straw," "Black Peter," "Stella Blue," "Brokedown Palace," "Playing in the Band," "Wharf Rat," and "Terrapin Station." They are missed, some more than others, but the 17 tracks here do present nearly all sides of the Dead while hitting their biggest songs: "Truckin'," "Touch of Grey," "Sugar Magnolia," "Casey Jones," "Friend of the Devil," "Uncle John's Band," "Box of Rain," and "Ripple." As that list proves, this is a set that leans heavily on the twin peaks of Workingman's Dead and American Beauty, but there's a reason why those two are beloved of Deadheads and casual fans alike: the classic songs are there. Also present here are staples like "The Golden Road," "One More Saturday Night," "Estimated Prophet," "Eyes of the World," and "U.S. Blues," which may not be as well-known to the general populace but help fill in the picture and provide a good portrait of the band. The collection would have been better if sequenced a little more chronologically, but nevertheless it provides a first-class introduction to a band whose catalog can often seem a little unwieldy.
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AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine